My Night Out At The Symphony

It's been just over a year since my kidney transplant, and probably closer to five or six years since I felt healthy enough to foray out into a solo Saturday night trip via public transportation to the big city. It took a well-reviewed classical music concert of one of my favorite symphonies, Rousell's Third, to propel me onto the "EL" in the Rockridge section of Oakland, without a ticket, to the upcoming event at Davies Hall. But, from experience, I trusted one would become available around a half an hour before show time.

In no time at all, I recalled, or shall I say, simply reenacted, my solutions to such states of heart and mind. Like autonomous natural radar, my senses zeroed in on the prey. Sullen, sulky and poignantly alone, she sat. the perfect target for my fantasamalogical meanderings. Oh sure, I imagined, we'll strike up a conversation, and perhaps after the concert (to which she will serendipitously happen to have an extra ticket) I'll be invited up to her South Market loft for a quick review of the summer of love. Of course, it was the middle of January, and barely above 40 degrees out there. Moreover, all this speculation was as likely to materialize as Jerry Garcia on Haight Street. Sitting just by my side, she got off a couple of stops before me, without a word having passed between us.

Nevertheless, as I had many times in my single life, imagining the experience assuaged my sense of isolation. Back then, in different circumstances, I might have managed at least a contrived conversation and perhaps a phone number. But as it is, my newly found middle-aged, medically sensitive wariness directed me away from such folly and unwaveringly toward my goal: the concert.

And a good thing that was, as getting there from the Civic Center station was no easy task. Having to traverse a humongous parcel of abandoned turf around the City Hall (once occupied by the homeless) I felt completely vulnerable to attack. There was not a soul in sight, 7pm on a Saturday night in the heart of downtown San Francisco. Talk about no there there! Step aside Oakland! Anyway, there I was, briskly afoot through the `thereless' Civic Center without a clue as to which way to turn to Davies Hall and the Symphony.

Somehow, the glimmer of distant lights suggested I follow their gleam, as I did, back to civilization and culture. Arriving at Davies Hall 50 minutes before showtime, I figured to try my hand at a giveaway or discounted ticket. After 15 minutes of what appeared to be slim pickings, I happily accepted an offer of $20 for a $29 seat up in the rafters. I was in.... and at a nice price, to boot.

The Beethoven Piano Concerto #5 is as familiar to me as the Beatles' greatest hits are to most of the Western world. Its musical lines have become almost colloquial by now, but because of the triumphant nature of the Beethovian's spirit, I somehow yearned for more riveting dynamics than the modest classical form could reveal. The pianist, a 25- year-old prodigy, Freddy Kemph, executed the transition between the second and third movements with a sensitivity I never before gleaned as a listener. Meanwhile, throughout the performance, the rhythmic rumblings of his left hand and the fluidity of his right left no doubt that they had completely independent agendas, barely checking in with each other, yet indomitably synchronized.

As a guitarist in the midst of a solo recording project, struggling to keep my clunker notes to a bearable minimum, I must confess to some relief when Freddy missed an occasional note of his own, but not nearly enough of them to disarm his presentation. He didn't just perform this piece, he caressed it. In doing so, he brought out energies often neglected in this magnificent work. At the same time, the overall heroic scope of the concerto was somewhat compromised. But no matter, I came for the Roussel, and after perusing the second tier crowd at intermission, that's what we got, and I mean big time!

First of all, this piece, written between the wars in 1930 is the quintessence of musical economy, yet engaging every opportunity of a full orchestra. Two harps, full brass, five percussionists and a sound that filled every crevice of the hall, evoked its aptly venerated acoustics. The symphony embraces a multitude of moods without languishing a moment too long on any one of them. Roussel, a one-time soldier of the sea, dives right into an ominous, primal, macho-military euphonic drama, then with transitional grace, tones it gently down to plaintive yearning and just as gracefully, to fanciful motions of innocence...all this in a matter of moments, within a musical architecture of uncanny brilliance.

In Roussel's taut, yet explosive work, you can hear the tensions of a world still riveted by "the war to end all wars" (WWI), and the portentous forces that were to lead to an ever greater travesty just a few years hence. In the midst of these times, the lyrical human spirit rebirths itself with an irrepressible life force to which Roussel gives no short shrift. The conceptual counterpoint of the themes, moving in and out around the larger forces of history, inevitably give the Third Symphony a unique place in the symphonic repertoire, especially considering the frugality in which Roussel structures this thematic potpourri of orchestral brilliance, in less than 30 minutes.

This has to be one of the most underrated, underplayed masterpieces of the 20th century and, I'd venture, of all symphonic literature. Rousell's Third Symphony must be heard live and delivered with animated interest, enthusiasm, and determined energy. Conducted with athletic exuberance by the BBC's Yan Pascal Torteliler, he never missed a beat, and did not disappoint! No CD nor state-of-the-art sound system can do this piece justice. In order to assimilate every detail, you need the hall, you need the visual complement to complete the experience. I was delightfully filled with all those energies as the work climbed its way to a close, with chords evoking depth changes of consciousness, yet resolving with ebullience and no uncertain finality. As a finale, Tortelier (enjoying every moment) delivered a full-blooded, no holds barred rendition of Ravel's "La Valse?"....another French humdinger that only a truly live performance can justly serve.

With such awesome composition and performances resounding through my senses, the walk back through the virtually abandoned streets expiated all thoughts and feelings of isolation, physical insecurity, and good, old-fashioned angst. back into the ethers of Davies Hall. The ride home across the bay became an extended chord from the evening's emphatic musicalities. I was virtually delirious with fulfillment. Not bad for twenty bucks and a lonesome, nostalgic, yet ultimately magnificent excursion into the January night.

Marc Twang


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